“You heard Donald Trump tonight sounding … more presidential,” Megyn Kelly noted playfully on Fox News. You could tell he was presidential in his New York victory speech, she felt, because he did not refer to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted.” Everyone seemed to agree on this count. “I think one of the things that’s most significant,” GOP strategist Steve Schmidt was saying over on MSNBC, was that “it wasn’t ‘Lying Ted.’ ”
“Exactly,” said his co-panelist Nicole Wallace, also a Republican.
“It was ‘Senator Cruz.’ ”
“Yes,” Wallace said. “Yes.”
Among a great many other things, this election has given us a good measure of just how far we’ve defined down presidential. Trump may indeed have been restrained on Tuesday night in celebrating his predictable but impressive win in the New York Republican primary, but he was certainly not presidential. He did his usual shtick (albeit at shorter length), mentioned the great businessmen in the room with him, told a story about a developer friend (undermining him at the same time), and inflated the night’s actual primary results. His speech focused on, yes, our lost greatness. “We are going to be, legitimately, so great again, and I just can’t wait,” he said. Trump was Trump, give or take.
But it was clear Tuesday night that, with Bernie all but cooked and Hillary in need of a new foil, the narrative now demanded that Trump be a candidate transformed. There was nothing Trump could’ve done to change the story. He could’ve swallowed his tie on stage, and Chris Matthews would still have acted as if he’d seen the ghost of John Lindsay sitting in his green room. “And I think,” Matthews exulted, “that that’s going to be one hell of a general election campaign—with Trump starting out very behind and perhaps catching up to a very exciting conclusion.”
Schmidt said Trump’s speech showed a willingness “to address the temperament criticism. … You see a potent general election message.” On Twitter, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, who has done extensive reporting on the Trump campaign, also noticed a new side to Trump, ascribing it to the influence of Paul Manafort, the GOP operative who has seemingly taken control of the ship.
Will any of this nonsense about the newly presidential Trump have an effect? Perhaps he will claw back a few wayward moderate voters in upcoming states, thanks to the friendly turn in media coverage, but the coverage isn’t going to help him beat Hillary Clinton in November. If he wants to do that, he is going to have to change his strategy entirely. Given that his strategy is an extension of his personality—given that his strategy is his personality–don’t count on it.
As it stands, should Trump get the nomination, Hillary Clinton would have the easiest path to the presidency imaginable: All she’d have to do is sit back and let Trump soak up the limelight. The problem for Trump isn’t simply that his policies are unpopular; it’s that people do not like him. His personality may appeal to certain segments of the electorate, but those groups combined don’t constitute a majority of Republican voters, let alone the general population. He is a fringe figure in every sense.
Still, you could see on Tuesday night the next step in the normalization of Donald Trump. Here was a new Trump, the TV people said. They knew all about the internal dynamics of the Trump campaign, how Corey Lewandowski had been supplanted as the brains of the operation. The “curated, Manaforted,” “on-message” Trump of Tuesday night was a manifestation of all that palace intrigue. To talk of a new Trump was to make a savvy, wised-up observation, even if it meant domesticating an American fascist.
“But the tone with Donald Trump tonight was so much more, so much more different than I had seen just a couple weeks ago,” MSNBC’s Trump reporter, Katy Tur, observed. “He came out, and he was gracious in his campaign speech. It was really short. It was concise.”
Why, he didn’t even call Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” she marveled. “He called him ‘Senator Cruz.’ ”